If David Leavitt has sometimes taken the artifice of the unreliable narrator a bit more literally than was ever conceived by Ford Madox Ford (his 1993 novel While England Sleeps had to be pulped and reissued, with apologies for lifting material from the memoirs of Sir Stephen Spender), he has regained ground in spectacular fashion with his latest work of fiction, The Body of Jonah Boyd.
At once a painstaking, Jane Austen-like disquisition on mortal life's mundane details, as viewed through the envious yet blasé eyes of the book's narrator, a career university secretary named Judith Denham, from the late 1960s to the present day, Jonah Boyd is also a tart-tongued satire on the rancid politics that pervade everything from the publishing business to higher education to the creation of art itself. At the same time, the book stands as a love story of the complex sort of which Leavitt is a master.
It's about love for a house that echoes the leitmotiv of Howards End; the unrequited passion of a girl for an older woman and passion of a young man for the same; and love for and fear of the fabulous novel, written and lost by the self-destructive, eponymous author Jonah Boyd, that acts upon the lives of all around it like Fate incarnate.
Above all, Jonah Boyd is about love for truth, as Denham sees it, even through the tangled forest of lies into which her obsession for a house, a family and a writer takes her. If the brilliantly sketched "Denny" does not soon take her place among the other immortal characters of modern fiction, I will be surprised. If not, this inspired gem from Leavitt's pen will still have set a new high standard for the author himself.
By David Leavitt (Bloomsbury, 215 pages, $23.95)